Feminism didn't lie to women about "having it all"

As Germaine Greer said: "I wanted to liberate women from the vacuum cleaner, not put them on the board of Hoover".

A recent essay in the Atlantic magazine by former US State Department official and Princeton Professor Anne-Marie Slaughter, entitled 'Why women still can't have it all', has got the world talking (again) about what it means to be a true 'twenty first century woman'. The article, which claims feminism sold women an unrealistic expectation that they could juggle having children and a high-powered career, has put more than a few noses out of joint and caused widespread discussion of the issue in the States.

Slaughter suggests that the career ladder shouldn't be seen as a straight upward climb. Instead, women should be prepared to build inevitable career sacrifices into their lives if they choose to have families. Turning down a promotion to spend more time working out the kinks in the life of your wayward teenage son, as Slaughter did, could be just as rewarding as skyrocketing your career and missing every bedtime along the way; the cutthroat capitalist culture of competitively clocking in the hours (a phrase made deceptively delightful by its alliterative qualities) is the reason that the glass ceiling holds strong. Social attitudes need to change to reflect the reality of women in the workplace and as a meaningful caregiver, Slaughter continues - and women must realise that the feminist dreams of their forebears may actually have been little more than well-spun lies.

This article is depressing and uplifting in equal measure. On the one hand, it's encouraging to hear Slaughter speak of her own choices unashamedly:
she made compromises in her career (despite being an incredibly successful member of the US government policy team) in order to enjoy the formative years of her children. She took a sabbatical to go to Shanghai with her husband so that they could grow closer as a family and learn Mandarin. She insists that when she does interviews, her two children are mentioned amongst her academic and business achievements, as further evidence of her hard work and dedication rather than mitigating factors.

On the other hand, however, Slaughter does us a disservice with her use of the word 'feminism'. Her entire argument is based upon the idea that women in practice 'feel' like they want to be with their children more than men - a suggestion that she herself predicts will cause a backlash in the media. The idea that feminists were kidding themselves while ignoring their inevitable biological fate to feel inextricably tied to their children doesn't sit entirely comfortably with us. The 'lies' that they sold - as Slaughter would have it, the idea that 'women can have it all' - were actually based on the fundamental assertion that women and men are equal, and 'having it all' should be as possible for women as it is for men.

Slaughter has a lot of sage advice for ways in which we can progress culturally to make this a reality, but her entire article is heavily underscored with the idea that everything will be harder for women because we are more naturally inclined toward family life. Not only that, but it defines 'having it all' in the narrowest sense possible: a truly flag-waving, apple-pie-eating American definition of a life fulfilled, even while she suggests that we move away from placing the onus on careers as definitive of self-worth.

'Having it all' sounds terribly spoilt, doesn't it? For Slaughter, it means 'having a (high-powered) career and a family life, but when magazines and newspapers talk of women 'having it all', there's often an inbuilt assumption that this 'all' that we are supposed to possess is something that men already have, and that we need to achieve parity with them. A happy world in which we all 'have it all' may sound Utopian, because it is, but it is also a rather modern idea, built around capitalistic notions of self-gratification. Considering the fact that one of the top regrets posited by dying men is that they worked too hard and didn't spend enough time with their families, it's somewhat simplistic to assume that they are the lucky proprietors of this 'all', and that, in the interests of fairness, we must have it too. We're not sure if we even want it - it sounds tiring.

The 'feminism' that Slaughter attacks is a straw woman. Feminism was never really about slotting seamlessly into a male-dominated capitalist system, it was a revolutionary social movement. Germaine Greer once said: "I wanted to liberate women from the vacuum cleaner, not put them on the board of Hoover". Quite. Slaughter writes about feminism as though it were a product that she bought and consumed, which then failed to live up to her expectations. Now she wants to take it back to the she shop because she didn't get to spend enough time with her children. We're not buying it.

Of course, Slaughter acknowledges that her argument is only relevant to women at the very highest echelons of the American power structure. So, not single mothers or low paid wage-slaves, but highly educated and ambitious women with certain expectations. In other words, it doesn't apply to most of us, here or in the States. Slaughter speaks of video-conferencing technology; of schools with hours that reflect office life; of paternity leave as enshrined as its female counterpart so that both partners take parenting seriously and mutually from the outset. But you can't work remotely from a supermarket checkout, and Slaughter's notion that changes to working patterns will 'trickle down' to the proles has a patronising whiff about it. Come! We will lead the poor into the Elysian Fields of equality!

The ruthlessly capitalist system in place in the US has more flaws in it than Slaughter cares to see. Of course, as is often with these things, her argument is entirely coloured by her own experiences. Which is why the debate is highly charged: almost every woman involved will have made her own choices and her own compromises and it's only natural to defend that.

This weekend, we asked a mother of nine children about 'having it all', and she said: "If they'd offered it to me on a plate I would have been too knackered to take it". Having children is exhausting, and the unfair division of domestic labour, aka 'the final feminist frontier', is barely touched upon in Slaughter's article. Perhaps what we need is some kind of conference that combines legislative reform with napping, because at the moment, the only women involved in the debate are the ones who aren't covered in baby sick. Because unlike Slaughter's argument, feminism is for everyone.
 

Feminism is about liberation and equality, not just career success. Photograph: Getty Images

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

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Appearing in a book is strange – being an actual character must be stranger

Much as it jolts me to come across a reference to my music in something I'm reading, at least it's not me.

I was happily immersed in the world of a novel the other day, Rachel Elliott’s Whispers Through a Megaphone, when suddenly I was jolted back into reality by my own appearance in the book. One of the characters hears someone singing and is told, “‘It’s Leonora. She sings with her window open.’ ‘She’s good – sounds like Tracey Thorn.’ ‘She does, doesn’t she.’”

It was as if I’d walked on stage while still being in the audience. It’s happened to me before, and is always startling, a kind of breaking of the fourth wall. From being the reader, addressed equally and anonymously, you become, even momentarily, a minor character or a representative of something. In this instance it was flattering, but the thing is, you have no control over what the writer uses you to mean.

In David Nicholls’s Starter for Ten, set in the mid-Eighties, the lead character, Brian – a hapless student, failing in both love and University Challenge – hopes that he is about to have sex with a girl. “We stay up for an hour or so, drinking whisky, sitting on the bed next to each other and talking and listening to Tapestry and the new Everything But the Girl album.” Ah, I realised, here I represent the kind of singer people listen to when they’re trying, though possibly failing, to get laid.

Fast-forward a few years, to the mid-Nineties of Bret Easton Ellis’s Glamorama, a book constructed from lists of people and things, clothes and music, which apparently indicate the vacuousness of modern life. “I dash into the Paul Smith store on Bond Street, where I purchase a smart-looking navy-gray raincoat. Everything But the Girl’s ‘Missing’ plays over everything” and later, “In the limo heading toward Charing Cross Road Everything But the Girl’s ‘Wrong’ plays while I’m studying the small white envelope . . .” Here I’m being used to represent the way bands become briefly ubiquitous: our songs are a soundtrack to the sleazy glamour of the novel.

These mentions are all fine; it’s only the music that features, not me. Spotting yourself as an actual character in someone’s novel must be more shocking: one of the perils of, for instance, being married to a novelist. I think of Claire Bloom and Philip Roth. First she wrote a memoir about how ghastly it was being married to him, then he wrote a novel about how ghastly it was to be married to someone very like her. Books as revenge: that’s very different indeed.

Few people who had ever met Morrissey emerged from his memoir unscathed (me included), but particularly Geoff Travis of Rough Trade. He was hung, drawn and quartered in the book, yet seems to have maintained a dignified silence. But it’s hard knowing how to deal with real people in memoirs. In mine, I chose not to name one character, a boy who broke my 18-year-old heart. Feverish speculation among old friends, all of whom guessed wrong, proved how much attention they’d been paying to me at the time. I also wrote about my teenage band, the Marine Girls, and then sent the chapter to the other members for approval. Which led to a fresh outbreak of hostilities and not-speaking, 25 years after we’d broken up. Don’t you just love bands?

Worrying about any of this would stop anyone ever writing anything. Luckily it didn’t deter John Niven, whose scabrous music-biz novel, Kill Your Friends, mixes larger-than-life monsters such as the fictional A&R man Steven Stelfox with real people: and not just celebs (Goldie, the Spice Girls), but record company executives (Ferdy Unger-Hamilton, Rob Stringer) known best to those of us in the biz, and presumably thrilled to have made it into a book. John confirmed to me recently: “In the end I got more grief from people I left out of the book than those I put in. Such is the ego of the music industry. I heard of one executive who bought about 30 copies and would sign them for bands, saying, ‘This was based on me.’ You create the Devil and people are lining up to say, ‘Yep. I’m that guy.’”

In other words, as I suspected, there’s only one thing worse than being written about. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred